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New Cookbooks Focus on Food With a Flair

Designer tableware, a restaurant with the lighting and style of a stage set, and linen napkins folded in the shape of exotic birds all point to the linked worlds of food and design. Starting with today's cookbook-design story, an occasional series, `A Taste for Design,' celebrates these intertwined disciplines.

DESIGNING a cookbook is a bit like putting dinner on the table. You have delicious food, but you need to present it in a way that's attractive and appealing without being overwhelming, overstyled, or confusing. In short, the package should be pretty, but also practical.

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For a good example in cookbook design, look no further than the ``Country Garden Cookbook'' series (Collins Publishers, San Francisco, 1993, $19.95 each). The books' format is an inspiration to people who cook and garden and to those who fantasize about such a lifestyle - even if it is just on the weekends.

The series was launched a year ago and, so far, includes six seasonal releases: ``Lemons,'' ``Greens,'' ``Apples,'' ``Potatoes,'' ``Berries,'' and ``Tomatoes.'' Coming this fall are ``Pears,'' and ``Squash''; four others will follow.

Jennifer Barry, vice president and publisher of Collins, won the Literary Marketplace Award for Individual Achievement in Book Design for the series, which was cited for its ``excellence and innovation.''

Ms. Barry conceived, directed, and designed the series. But she didn't start out by asking ``What would people like in a cookbook?'' Her thought process was more, well, organic. She asked herself: ``What would I like in a cookbook?'' It seemed only natural, since her personal passions are gardening, food, and design.

``A lot of designers are closet chefs, and they love to cook,'' says Barry, reached by phone. ``Cooking is another way they express their creativity; creating wonderful dishes and working with food is very much like a design process - without the pressure of performing for a client.

``In addition to cooking, one of the things that really inspires me is just looking at food. I'm a great lover of farmers' markets. If you don't grow food yourself, they're the next best thing.''

The photos in the books - taken at farms and gardens in Northern California by Kathryn Kleinman and Deborah Jones - include painterly still lifes (such as the covers) and prepared dishes al fresco. Coming off the cream-colored pages, framed with white borders, they are inviting, not slick. So the focus is on food, not on frou-frou place settings.

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``So many cookbooks in the past decade have been much more stylized and lit. These are very special because they use all-natural light and existing places,'' explains Kathryn Kleinman, who photographed ``Lemons,'' ``Apples,'' and ``Berries.'' ``In the '90s, more and more people are interested in home and garden,'' she observes.

As a visual artist, Ms. Kleinman says her goal is to have people see food the way she sees food. ``It's so beautiful; it's like flowers in its natural state - the colors are beautiful.... Every day, people take food for granted. I wanted people to stop and not take it for granted.''

Barry adds that there was a deliberate balancing act of showing produce in its raw state (still lifes) and showing it in prepared dishes.

THE recipes, about 50 to a book, tend to be short and simple, only one to a page. Some are ``greatest hits,'' such as American Apple Pie, while others are cutting-edge and Californian. Here's a sampling: Garden Lettuces with Fuyu Persimmons and Figs, Pan-Seared Salmon with Lemon Cilantro Pesto, Oven-Roasted Ratatouille, Saffron Mashed Potatoes with Grilled Fish and Tomato-Fennel Sauce, Risotto with Apples, Chocolate Truffle Pie with Raspberry Sauce and Fresh Raspberries. The authors are established food writers, chefs, and book authors. In addition, the books offer tips on growing, selecting, storing, and freezing fruits or vegetables with photographs illustrating different varieties.

`The real objective that we all had as a team - consciously and sometimes subconsciously- was to make these books accessible for anybody,'' Barry says. ``This is something you could do in your own kitchen, whether your [produce] came from the grocery store or your garden,''

The series has really been a ``labor of love,'' Barry says. ``It's an example of how the spirit in which you do something comes through in your work.''

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